The President's Fantasy Cabinet

Flickr/The White House

As the president’s second term gets underway, experts and activists look back and weigh in on who Obama should have chosen to serve, if partisan politics (and reality) were no object.

Secretary of State

John Kerry would be a safe bet and a solid Secretary of State. But I’m not sure if a safe, solid Secretary of State—or a solid Secretary of Defense—is precisely what America needs now. That Kerry turned against the Iraq war and revised his views on the use of force is a credit to him. President Obama has clearly decided that he wishes to pursue a prudent, status quo-oriented foreign policy. But as the Middle East threatens to implode and with America’s moral leadership increasingly in doubt, a better choice would be someone at least slightly outside the Washington consensus—someone who saw foreign policy as a way to fashion new opportunities rather than manage the same set of threats. Though the Obama administration may not agree, the Arab Spring is on par with the transformative world events of 1848, 1945, and 1989. In an ideal world, Obama would appoint someone who gets the Arab revolutions and understands the opportunities they provide for bold, creative U.S. policymaking. 

To be sure, there are few candidates of stature who fit that bill. Two exceptions are Samantha Power and Michael McFaul. Power came from a human rights background and, as Director for Multilateral Affairs on Obama’s National Security Council, has been a key administration voice for a more ideals-based foreign policy (especially during the debate over intervention in Libya). McFaul was also a senior NSC director and is now U.S. Ambassador to Russia (full disclosure: I briefly worked with McFaul when I was a fellow at the center he directed at Stanford University). Before joining the administration, he established himself as one of the leading American scholars not only on Russian politics but also on democratic transitions, an issue that is front and center not only in the Arab world, but also in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Eastern Europe. There is also something to be said for having an academic in the position, which can mean (but certainly doesn’t always) that the person in question has a broader, longer-term view of economic and political dynamics and the role they play in international politics.  

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. 


Attorney General

I’m a fan of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. President Obama could choose Patrick as his next Supreme Court nominee, as a welcome move toward diversity of experience to the bench, since Patrick is of course a politician rather than a sitting appeals court judge, the usual profile. Patrick is also an excellent prospect for Attorney General. He served as an Assistant Attorney General  in the Clinton administration, working on civil rights cases. He has held just about every other legal job, too, at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, as a partner at the Boston law firm Hill & Bartlow, and as general counsel for Texaco and Coca-Cola. And people who work with him say he is smart and generous.

Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate, contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, and a Senior Research Scholar and lecturer at Yale Law School. 


Treasury Secretary

The best candidate for Treasury Secretary would be Ben Bernanke. He has proven to be more expansion-minded and more sensitive to the need to regulate financial institutions than any of his recent predecessors. The script called for Bernanke to demand budget cuts in exchange for lower interest rates, but Bernanke pointedly refused to join the austerity gang. On the contrary he warned against too much cutting and then took the further step of giving priority to reducing unemployment rather than fretting about non-existent inflation.

Bernanke’s term as Federal Reserve chair expires in early 2014. If he moved over to Treasury, the Fed’s superb Vice-Chair, Janet Yellen, would move up. She’d be the first woman chair. She also has no use for the deficit hawks, gets along well with Bernanke, and the two would make a dynamic duo to counter the influence of the austerity gang. That, alas, includes Jack Lew, whom Obama has appointed and who is likely to be confirmed. But one can dream.

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and editor of The American Prospect, as well as a distinguished senior fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week and continues to write columns in The Boston Globe. He is the author of Obama's Challenge and other books.


Secretary of Education

The second term is a good time to start fresh. If President Obama's Secretary of Education should decide to move on, the president will have a good opportunity to fix the flaws in his education program. 

Education in Obama's first term was a brassy re-run of the Bush agenda. The ideal candidate for a dream team is Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University. She has several huge advantages. During the 2008 campaign, Darling-Hammond was Obama's education advisor and he knows her well. She is known and trusted by the nation's three million plus professional educators. She is one of the nation's wisest, most experienced scholars of education. 

Obama made the mistake in his first term of building on the flawed foundation of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program of testing and choice. NCLB is loathed by educators and unpopular with parents. Arne Duncan's Race to the Top is a muscular version of NCLB, which has unleashed privatization, school closings, and teaching to the test. In the 2012 campaign, Romney and Obama could not debate education because there were so few differences between them.

Darling-Hammond would restore a Democratic agenda of equity, professionalism, and a focus on the needs of children. She would not ignore the fact that more than 20 percent of our children live in poverty. Under her leadership, the federal government would again focus on equality of educational opportunity, not a fruitless race to a mythical top.

Diane Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at New York University and an education historian and served as an Assistant Secretary of Education.


Secretary of Labor 

Ai-Jen Poo has spent her career organizing workers whom our laws—and our culture—often don’t recognize as workers at all. As a founder of New York’s Domestic Workers United and now the head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Poo is working to build leverage for workers for whom work is precarious, poverty is the norm, and the law has been of little help. That describes a growing segment of the U.S. workforce. Faced with these challenges, Poo—like the unions she often partners with—has embraced a range of tactics, from training workers to directly confront abusive bosses, to organizing mass mobilizations to change the law.

A Poo appointment would recognize the changing nature of American work, and it would elevate a woman who knows well how the government has failed American workers. That includes the Obama Labor Department. In the president’s first term, the department scuttled a modest proposal to restrict agricultural companies from requiring child workers to use dangerous machinery. A set of modest potential protections for domestic workers was announced a year ago, and expected to get the DOL stamp of approval before Election Day, but instead continues to languish.

Such disappointments took place under Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, a progressive former congresswoman whose 2009 appointment was widely hailed by labor leaders. Cabinet secretaries can only do so much. So perhaps the key, unknowable qualification for a fantasy DOL nominee is this: Who would be willing, if the moment demands it, to resign in protest?

Josh Eidelson is a freelance journalist and former labor organizer. 


Secretary of Health and Human Services

I nominate Don Berwick as the head of Health and Human Services.

Despite spending more than 17 percent of our gross domestic product on health care—which far exceeds all other developed OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries by a considerable margin—the U.S. trails in key health outcome and health care metrics.  Without significant change in health care financing and operations—changes which would pay for value-based care (high quality care for all people at lowest possible cost), eliminate waste and inefficiency, and invest in the root causes of poor and expensive health (through community-based empowerment, education, and wellness efforts)—our country is doomed for further economic and societal failure. 

Few people in the health and business sectors understand the complexity of the problem, and even fewer understand the potential solutions that can be implemented and scaled to achieve broad and positive reform.   Dr. Don Berwick can do both. 

As former Executive of the Institute for Health Care Improvement, he has been a proponent of evidence-based medicine to improve quality of care, reduce unnecessary and avoidable costs, and improve satisfaction among patients and providers alike. He has provided the health care industry with “change packages” and tools to improve the way they deliver and measure care. He was a prime architect of the Institute of Medicine’s “Crossing the Quality Chasm” report and led a successful campaign to reduce medical errors and unnecessary deaths across the country. As former Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service, he challenged the health care world to achieve the “Triple Aim” and invest in transformative and scalable solutions that could be implemented in any health care setting.  He is an inspirational, pragmatic, and effective leader who is willing to do what it takes to reverse our current health care trends and ensure high quality and affordable care for all people

Dr. Heidi L. Behforouz is the Executive Director of PACT, a collaboration by Partners In Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston that focuses on effectively integrating community health workers into primary care and mental health teams.


Secretary of Energy

It depends. If the Obama administration is truly set on their 'all-of-the-above' drill-where-you-like clean-coal energy strategy, then the guy they need is Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon. He, after all, has helpfully explained that global warming is merely an 'engineering problem with engineering solutions.' But if the administration is actually interested in a dramatic fight to re-engineer America for renewables, I'd pick a different businessman: Danny Kennedy of Sungevity. He's a great salesman for renewables. Who knows, he might even be able to persuade Obama to put solar panels back on the White House roof. 

Bill McKibben is a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the author of a dozen books about the environment. 

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